Imagine yourself picking up a book called Current Trends In Relativistic Astrophysics: Theoretical, Numerical, Observational, and attempt to read it without any prior background knowledge, education, training, or interest in the subject matter. You start reading it, and, for the most part, you understand the words and how they are strung to together, have some issues with the vocabulary, and somehow manage to muddle your way through the first chapter, and can say that you read it.
But did you understand it?
This is exactly what many students do with both fiction and nonfiction texts. They can decode most words well, stumble with difficult vocabulary words, and for the most part make it through the text, but they have absolutely no idea what they have just read. In other words, they can mechanically read the text, but cognitively have no idea what it means.
Obviously different texts of varying degrees of difficulty require different strategies, but all texts demand that readers use metacognition to understand what they have read.
Simply put, metacognition is actively thinking about what you are reading, as you are reading. Or another way to look at it, is that as you are reading something mechanically, your brain is actively building connections between the words and meaning of the passage or text.
In the process of thinking about what you are reading, you can tell when you are stuck on a sentence and say to yourself, “Hey, I didn’t understand that.” So you go back and reread it or break it into manageable parts so that you can understand them.
Most dyslexic readers CANNOT do this–they are the sneaky dyslexics–the ones who can read beautifully, decode wonderfully, but can’t remember what they have read or actively connect what they have read into a meaningful piece of text. They often fool teachers (hey, not intentionally), but if you don’t watch them, you will lose them and blame their lack of comprehension on some other irrelevant or insidious factor.
Reading specialists and teachers MUST teach metacognition. Sometimes this looks like a think-aloud. A think-aloud is where you demonstrate your thought process of figuring out meaning by verbally demonstrating strategies you use while you are reading to understand meaning. Then you have students mimic the thinking out loud process. My only problem with this strategy is that it can be overwhelming for a dyslexic learner. So if you are going to teach metacognition with a think-aloud, only teach one strategy at a time (for example “using prior knowledge” to figure out what a word means). Don’t overwhelm your struggling readers and become enamored with the sound of your own voice–meaning don’t use long passages and keep droning on. Believe me, I’ve done this. When you see several sets of eyes wandering around the room, you know you’re in trouble.
And here’s some insight from Leslie Oster who wrote an article for The Reading Teacher (journal)
Several studies have shown that students who verbalize their reading strategies and thoughts while reading score significantly higher on comprehension tests.
Here is great nice resource for older readers (but you can adapt this for younger readers) to teach metacognitive strategies from Read Polk, Polk County Florida: Using Think-Alouds to Improve Reading Comprehension
Another way to encourage metacognitive thinking is to drill down to the specific words, sentences and phrases that students are getting stuck on. I created a strategy called “Keeping My Eyes on Reading” for 3rd grade students in which they used highlighter tape, highlighters, or pencils to make notations and symbols within the text to show where they were having trouble. This line by line and paragraph by paragraph and page by page approach FORCES students to make sure they understand what they are reading. And as a teacher I clearly learned where they were confused and where they were OK.
First I would take a small group of students (up to six) and teach them the “Keeping My Eyes On Reading” strategy. Every time we gathered together for this intervention, I would give them a new article or page from a text-book to practice on.
Here is the marking-up strategy I’m referring to:
1. Students draw a box around (or highlight) a section they are confused about and put a question mark ? in the margin.
2. They draw a circle around a word they don’t recognize or know.
3. They place an exclamation point ! next to a paragraph they mostly understand.
4. At the end of the page, they decide if understand the text by drawing a smiley face –OR–
5. At the end of the page they decide if they mostly didn’t understand the text by drawing a sad face.
I kept it simple. After students were done reading each page, we reviewed what they did or did not understand. Believe me this was very telling and I learned a lot!! They misunderstood parts that I thought they would easily understand and many of them understood parts that I thought they would struggle with … so never assume.
This of course was a perfect segue to teaching a reading comprehension strategy discussion and lesson: Does this remind you of anything you already learned in ___ class? Can you connect it to some other idea or book you have read? Do you understand what the pronouns are linked to? What part of that section is particularly confusing? How can you decode that word and can you connect it to another word you know? Have you tried rereading? Have you gone back far enough to reread? Have you read it out loud? Do you understand the punctuation? Etc, etc …
Before kids can verbalize what they don’t understand, they must locate where they are confused. So teaching any “marking up” strategy would be beneficial to struggling readers before you begin teaching verbal think-aloud strategies. This gives a reader time to process what they don’t understand, gives them a visual reference, and helps them pinpoint their problems. Afterwards, they can then verbalize exactly what is troubling them by going back to those coded areas of text.
Metacognition: Don’t let your brain read without it!!